What Exactly is Melanoma?

Dermatologist examines a mole

Many people have heard the term “melanoma” enough to know that it refers to skin cancer. The terms are not interchangeable, however. Not all skin cancers are melanoma, and not all melanoma is skin cancer. While “melanoma” does most often refer to cancer of the skin, a patient may develop melanoma of the eyes or of any mucus membrane, such as the mouth, the lining of the nose, the throat, or even the anus or vagina. But what is melanoma?

Melanoma derives its name from it’s source – most melanoma begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that determines the color of a person’s skin, hair, and eyes. These are also the cells that create moles. Most moles do not turn into melanoma, however melanoma does often present as an abnormal mole or other skin marking. Fortunately, this means that melanoma often literally shows itself to the patient in its early stages, making it easier to detect and treat the cancer.

Melanoma, like any disease, affects different people in different ways. While there is no absolute certain combination of symptoms, some common signs may include:

  • A change on the skin – This could be a new mole appearing, a change in color on a part of skin, or a previously existing spot on the skin changing in size or shape.

  • One or more sores that don’t heal

  • A spot or sore on the skin that may be painful, tender, itchy, or may bleed

  • A visible spot or lump on the skin that appears waxy, shiny, smooth, or abnormally pale

  • A hard red lump that may bleed or may appear crusty

  • A red, flat spot that may be rough, dry, or scaly

Research suggests that roughly 90% of melanoma cases can be directly linked to ultraviolet (UV) rays, which people are primarily exposed to via the sun or artificial lights such as found in tanning beds. The remaining approximate 10% of melanoma cases are believed to be caused by genetics and various environmental factors. The best way to prevent melanoma is to limit your exposure to damaging UV rays. Avoid tanning beds and use sunscreen when you go outside. Opt for broad spectrum sunscreen, with an SPF of 30 or higher. Apply approximately one ounce of sunscreen about 15 minutes before going into the sun, and reapply every two hours or after getting wet. Protective clothing such as long pants and long sleeves, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats offer extra protection. Remember that skin checks save lives. Perform a self check every month, and have your doctor check your skin once a year or any time you have concerns.


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